CIA aids weapons flow to Syria rebels
WASHINGTON — A small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, US officials and Arab intelligence officers said.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the officials said.
The CIA officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior US official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbors would do so.
The clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is the most detailed known instance of the limited US support for the military campaign against the Syrian government. It is also part of Washington’s attempt to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad of Syria, who has escalated his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule.
With Russia blocking more aggressive steps against the Assad government, the United States and its allies have instead turned to diplomacy and aiding allied efforts to arm the rebels seeking to force Assad from power.
By helping to select among rebel groups, US intelligence operatives in Turkey hope to learn more about a growing, changing opposition network inside of Syria and to establish new ties.
“CIA officers are there and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people,’’ said one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by US counterparts.
US officials and retired CIA personnel said the administration was weighing additional assistance to rebels, such as providing satellite imagery and other detailed intelligence on Syrian troop locations and movements. The administration is also considering whether to help the opposition set up a rudimentary intelligence service. But no decisions have been made on those measures or even more aggressive steps, like sending CIA officers into Syria itself, they said.
The struggle inside Syria has the potential to intensify significantly in coming months as powerful new weapons are flowing to both the Syrian government and opposition fighters. President Obama and his top aides are seeking to pressure Russia to curb arms shipments like attack helicopters to Syria, its main ally in the Middle East.
‘‘We'd like to see arms sales to the Assad regime come to an end, because we believe they've demonstrated that they will only use their military against their own civilian population,’’ Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said after Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, met in Mexico on Monday.
Spokesmen for the White House, State Department, and CIA would not comment on any intelligence operations supporting the Syrian rebels, some details of which were reported last week by The Wall Street Journal.
Until now, the public face of the administration’s Syria policy has largely been diplomacy and humanitarian aid.
The State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, on the sidelines of a meeting of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers in St. Petersburg next Thursday. The private talks will probably focus, at least in part, on the crisis in Syria.